Unhoused in Phoenix’s perilous warmth: ‘If I don’t maintain cool, I’ll die’


It was mid afternoon when first responders discovered David Spell slumped and unresponsive underneath a bus shelter. The temperature exterior was nearing 110F (43C) – the most well liked day of the yr to date in Phoenix, and 50-year-old Spell was disorientated, dizzy and dehydrated.

Spell had felt sizzling and weary throughout his shift at a automotive public sale after driving an outdated Buick with out air con, however couldn’t take a break. After ending work he purchased three cans of spiked blue razz, an 8% alcopop, and sat on the bus shelter bench to drink underneath the partial shade. He remembers consuming some canned mackerel and opening the third alcopop, after which nothing till being roused by the EMTs. He had handed out with warmth exhaustion.

Spell, who describes himself as a functioning alcoholic, was taken to an air conditioned emergency homeless shelter to chill down. By dusk, he was nonetheless lightheaded however cycled again to his typical resting spot – a quiet sheltered church doorway with cool air seeping out by means of the perspex letter field and an electrical socket to cost his telephone.

It was an uncomfortable night time, with the temperature solely dropping to 84F (29C), and no breeze or working water to chill down.

“It’s getting so sizzling, if I don’t maintain cool and hydrated I’ll die out right here,” mentioned Spell, a self-taught mechanic and eager gamer initially from Buffalo, New York, who will get round on a trailer bike to move spare elements, a mini ice chest and a plastic white pail that doubles as a seat and emergency bathroom.

Spell has been unsheltered for over 14 years. He locates locations he can cool off in shade or close to vents in buildings the place air con leaks out. {Photograph}: Caitlin O’Hara for the Guardian

In this sweltering heat, maintaining cool is the toughest factor for Spell and the quickly rising unsheltered inhabitants in Phoenix – one in every of America’s quickest rising cities which has an excessive warmth and reasonably priced housing downside.

Since 2016, warmth deaths have greater than doubled in Maricopa county, which incorporates Phoenix, with unsheltered homeless individuals accounting for 40% of the dying toll.

“We’re on the frontline of local weather change and the housing disaster, however individuals aren’t connecting the dots,” mentioned Patricia Soils from Arizona State College. “Publicity to excessive warmth is a housing problem, and we’re the canary within the coalmine.”


Phoenix is accustomed to a sizzling desert local weather, however the warmth season has expanded and the variety of perilously sizzling days and nights is rising resulting from international heating and unchecked city growth which has transformed Arizona’s capital right into a sprawling concrete warmth island.

Stacey Champion talks with the Phoenix Fire Department after meeting someone who seemed to be suffering from heat stroke while passing out water and cooling towels to unsheltered neighbors staying in The Zone on June 11, 2022, in Phoenix, Ariz.
Stacey Champion talks with the Phoenix Fireplace Division after assembly somebody who gave the impression to be affected by warmth stroke, whereas passing out water and cooling towels to unsheltered neighbors staying in ‘the zone’ on 11 June. {Photograph}: Caitlin O’Hara for the Guardian

America’s fifth largest metropolis is the deadliest for warmth fatalities with greater than 650 warmth deaths over the past two years.

In response to the county’s annual depend, 9,026 individuals had been homeless on 24 January – 3,997 sheltered in hostels or resorts and 5,029 on the streets, which is triple the variety of unsheltered individuals compared to 2016. Warmth associated deaths are preventable, however being exterior with out satisfactory shade and water will increase the chance of medical issues and lethal warmth publicity.

As the intense warmth season will get underway, it’s arduous to pinpoint precisely how many individuals are presently homeless however the disaster has visibly gotten worse over latest months as rents and eviction charges have soared.

At 4am someday final week, the Guardian accompanied an outreach workforce to the downtown zone the place lots of the metropolis’s shelters and homeless providers are concentrated, for his or her weekly depend. Medication like fentanyl and meth are frequent, so are gunshots.

An aged white man with a bushy white beard and a historical past of psychological sickness screamed on the outreach workers, accusing them of stealing his cash. A middle-aged Black woman with unkempt hair and three purchasing baggage containing garments requested for assist getting residence to Dallas, Texas. “I’m bored with this place, it’s too sizzling,” she mentioned.

This stretch of unshaded concrete and asphalt, identified merely because the zone, is full of a hotchpotch of battered tents and makeshift shelters constructed with purchasing carts, tarpaulin, crates, wood pallets and outdated garments. The encampment has doubled in measurement for the reason that Guardian’s go to in February. A number of burnt out tents have been deserted.

Left: Lola May Brown, 62, cools down and drinks water on a mobile cooling bus in The Zone. Right: Althea Scott, 40, cools off in a fountain on June 11, 2022, in Phoenix, Ariz. The high temperature hit 114°F during an excessive heat warning.
Left: Lola Could Brown, 62, cools down and drinks water on a cellular cooling bus within the zone. Proper: Althea Scott, 40, cools off in a fountain on 11 June in Phoenix, Arizona, as temperatures hit 114F. {Photograph}: Caitlin O’Hara for the Guardian

It was comparatively cool at 4am (86F/30C) after every week of document breaking highs, although undoubtedly a lot hotter on the bottom the place 96 individuals lay in rows with none shelter in any respect.

Through the day, the solar is punishing and the warmth radiating off the asphalt scorches the pores and skin. There’s a handful of portaloos and faucets, however just one chilly water spigot. Metropolis staff, NGOs and anxious residents hand out chilly drinks and cooling blankets on highly regarded days when the temperature on the asphalt can hit 160F.

Final week’s depend was 806, in comparison with 320 in July 2021 and 476 in December 2021. That is regardless of two authorities funded shelters sleeping 300 individuals opening previously month.

The weekly snapshot of the zone gives a glimpse right into a a lot larger disaster.

There are women and men sleeping tough all around the metropolis – in parks, close to the rail tracks, on sidewalks, behind dumpsters, in parking heaps and alongside the canals. None are included within the weekly depend, nor are the individuals sleeping in automobiles or on sofas whom advocates imagine are sometimes self-evictors – individuals who left unaffordable flats voluntarily after the Covid eviction moratorium and federal rental help ended.

Bar chart of heat-associated deaths in Maricopa county, segmented by people who are homeless and all other people. Both groups have increased deaths in recent years.

Evictions are again to pre-pandemic levels with 4,000 to 5,000 a month to date this yr because the reasonably priced housing inventory continues to shrink and the town’s 11% inflation fee is the very best within the nation – in massive due to home costs.

“We had been already at disaster ranges, now it seems like we’re on fireplace,” mentioned Marisol Saldivar, a spokesperson for the housing nonprofit St Vincent de Paul. “It is a transplant city, but it surely doesn’t work out for everybody who comes on the lookout for alternatives.”

Maricopa is the country’s fastest growing county with 5,000 individuals (principally inside migrants) arriving on common every month.

In only one week on the streets of Phoenix, the Guardian met unsheltered individuals from Florida, New York, New Jersey, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Michigan, Idaho, California, Oregon, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Nevada and the Navajo Nation.

Stacey Champion, left, and Nicole Rodriguez pass out water and cooling towels to unsheltered neighbors staying in The Zone, an encampment where conservative estimates say 900 people stay, during an excessive heat warning where the temperature reached 114°F on June 11, 2022 in Phoenix, Ariz. Champion organizes people to take action and contact elected officials and utility companies to advocate for people struggling to stay safe and cool during extreme heat.
Stacey Champion, left, and Nicole Rodriguez go out water and cooling towels to unsheltered neighbors staying in ‘the zone’, an encampment the place conservative estimates say 900 individuals keep, on 11 June as temperatures reached 114F. {Photograph}: Caitlin O’Hara for the Guardian

For years, advocates have warned a couple of looming housing disaster however there’s been little joined up motion and reasonably priced housing is now nearly unimaginable to search out. The price of a mean residence in Phoenix has nearly doubled previously six years

In 2021, only 6% of the housing stock in Maricopa county was valued underneath $200,000 in comparison with 38% 5 years earlier. The Phoenix housing market is overpriced by 56%, according to researchers at Florida Atlantic university, because the US housing market goes by means of one other historic growth.

For renters, the state of affairs is much more dire: in 2021, solely 12% of properties had month-to-month rents underneath $1000 in comparison with 68% 5 years earlier.

Bar chart of the percent of apartments in Maricopa county by their median rent price. As of 2021 apartments under $500 have disappeared, while apartments over $1,500 make up 54% of rentals.

Arizona is amongst a handful of states which prohibits local governments from enacting hire management or mandating builders to incorporate reasonably priced housing in new building. In April, the county accredited $17m of federal Covid support from the American Rescue Plan Act for reasonably priced housing tasks.

“Essentially, to get forward of heat-associated deaths and sickness, we should have a look at housing and give you revolutionary metropolis and state extensive systematic options,” mentioned Solis.


On the most well liked day to date this yr (114F/46C)), 69-year-old Clayton Hatfield watched a documentary on the second world conflict whereas recharging his fan on the Justa centre – an air conditioned area for older homeless individuals within the zone.

Hatfield has been residing in a tent since arriving from Idaho six months in the past for a job at a cousin’s glass firm that didn’t pan out. His social safety isn’t sufficient to cowl hire; his ribs protrude by means of his scrawny body and his well being is failing.

Clayton Hatfield, 69, watches a WWII documentary on his computer at the Justa Center, a support center for unsheltered elders in The Zone, an encampment where conservative estimates say 900 unsheltered people stay, during an excessive heat warning where the temperature reached 114°F on June 11, 2022 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Clayton Hatfield, 69, watches a second world conflict documentary on his laptop on the Justa Middle, a help middle for unsheltered elders in ‘the zone’. {Photograph}: Caitlin O’Hara for the Guardian

“Unhealthy breaks and poor choices, that’s why I’ve ended up right here,” mentioned Hatfield, who has bronchial asthma, COPD and arthritis in each knees, and desires surgical procedure on his left foot.

One in 4 of the town’s unsheltered inhabitants are over the age of 55, in response to annual point-in-time count. On this warmth, some seniors experience the bus all day to maintain cool.

Nationwide, seniors are the fastest growing group in the homeless inhabitants, with many discovering themselves on streets for the primary time resulting from unaffordable rents, medical money owed, job insecurity and household rifts. According to a 2019 study, the aged homeless inhabitants may triple by 2030.

“It’s a shock at my age, I’ve by no means skilled warmth like this,” mentioned Hatfield, who can nearly handle strolling to the comfort retailer for ice as soon as a day.

It’s arduous for anybody to acclimatise to this warmth, however for seniors on the streets it’s particularly dangerous.

“Too many individuals are ageing into poverty, it makes me sick to my abdomen,” mentioned Wendy Johnson, director of the Justa centre.

Spell, who’s been sleeping within the church doorway on and off for 17 years, worries that he’s getting too outdated for the streets.

On daily basis is difficult, however the summer time is very gruelling. The Guardian shadowed Spell throughout the season’s first excessive heatwave, and noticed firsthand how arduous it’s for unhoused individuals to outlive.

Spell’s first cease is all the time his storage unit to select up what he wants for the day, which takes greater than an hour biking over uneven roads and railway tracks. The morning after he handed out it was 107F (42C) by the point he arrived. He was exhausted, and pretended to seek for a misplaced merchandise in order that he may calm down for an hour with out being requested to depart.

On days off, his go-to spot is then the midtown public library subsequent to Hance park, the place cool air escapes by means of the ground to ceiling home windows. The deep window ledge is partially shaded by sloping concrete slabs and a line of younger oak bushes . Police usually patrol the park, so he by no means stays for too lengthy .

Spell cools off while unloading belongings into his storage container on 10 June as temperatures hit 112F in Phonenix.
Spell cools off whereas unloading belongings into his storage container on 10 June as temperatures hit 112F. {Photograph}: Caitlin O’Hara for the Guardian

Within the afternoon, he goes to an air conditioned Taco Bell to recharge his telephone and sip chilly fountain sodas for so long as the workers let him. It’s a relentless battle between maintaining cool and staying out of hassle.

Spell is burnt out and not too long ago utilized for social housing. He qualifies, however ready lists are lengthy because the pool of landlords accepting individuals with housing vouchers has shrunk as there’s far more cash to be made within the non-public sector.

Spell mentioned: “I’m bored with the streets, my physique’s too outdated for this. I don’t need to drop lifeless out right here.”



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